The Indigenization of Thai Restaurants Overseas: Part One – American Fast Food Chains in Thailand

KFC Thailand fried chicken with green curry

Originally, this was supposed to be a short post about KFC Thailand’s fried chicken with green curry sauce, how funny the advertisement for this same menu offering at KFC Malaysia is (“So authentic even the Thais want it“), and how surprised I am to have found recently that it is quite good [1]. But after having given it more thought, I’ve found myself going off in a different direction. What this has become is the first of a two-part piece on why Thai food as found in most Thai restaurants overseas is the way it is, i.e. anything from slightly different to almost unrecognizably different to perfect-fodder-for-Thais-eating-at-a-Thai-restaurant-overseas-to-photograph-and-show-to-their-Facebook-friends-just-how-ridiculous-it-is different from what you find in Thailand.
At a risk of being too simplistic, it all comes down to the need — be it real or felt — to please (the locals). Ideally, you would be able to export food as it is made in one culture to another without any alteration and have it wholly embraced by the locals. But in reality, it’s not so easy. Many success stories of American fast-food chains in different countries around the world testify to this fact: indigenize or go home (or indigenize poorly and be mediocre). I know that the scope of this is unfairly narrow, but this is a blog post, not a thesis. So I’ll just cover one aspect of it which is most relevant to the subject of this blog: the making of Thai food.
So I’m thinking: If we want to understand the Americanization of Thai food, perhaps we should look first at the other side of it: the indigenization of American food.

mango cart bangkok
I snapped the above picture as I was on my way to interviewing the owner of a khao man gai shop in Bangkok (I thought this mango vendor was so creative in the way he tied to his cart branches of a mango tree with mangoes still attached to them — a mobile mango grove, if you will. This is not at all a common sight in Bangkok, by the way. It looked cumbersome, and the man was struggling to push his cart in a straight line due to the mango branches obstructing his view. But it also seems like a brilliant marketing strategy. Even if he can’t get you to buy, he certainly makes you look.)
But that’s not the point.
When I posted this on my Facebook wall, some people made comments about the KFC outlet in the background (which I hadn’t noticed prior to that point) and how the popular American fast-food chain stood in stark contrast to the fresh, natural, local fruit in the foreground. How could the Thai people eat, let alone like, that junk when they have all the fresh, delicious Thai food available in every corner of the city?
Fair questions. They also got me thinking.
Having thought about the issue, I’ve come to one conclusion: the Thai people eat at KFC and McDonald’s, arguably the most successful American franchises in the history of Thailand, because, well, they like them.
These American fast-food chains represent something new, different, and western. Considering that a bowl of noodles costs 30 baht (US$1) on the average and the daily minimum wage across the country is 300 baht (US$10), a meal combo at one of these restaurants which falls anywhere within the 120-300 baht (US$4-10) range, is expensive. Is KFC fried chicken better than Thai fried chicken? Depends on whom you ask, I guess. All I know is that munching on a fried chicken drumstick on the street isn’t working very well as a status indicator compared to eating a piece of KFC fried chicken with a knife and fork in an air-conditioned place.
One thing for sure: the Thai people don’t eat these American fast foods because they’re short on time — and I laugh out loud every time it’s suggested — otherwise they’d go for a rice-curry shop on the street; they eat at these American fast-food places because they enjoy the foods and, for some, to be seen as those who can afford them. After all, these are not stops on the highway where you go grab a shake and a couple of fries while filling your car with gas. These fast-food restaurants are located in the poshest of Bangkok malls where people go sit and linger for a long time — so long that McDonald’s Thailand recently came up with the new one-hour rule.
(Brand perception is different in Thailand. In Chicago, Krispy Kreme doughnuts can be found at Target, Walmart, and gas station convenience stores. It’s not at all considered a fancy brand. Quite the opposite is true in Thailand. People lined up to get a taste of these American doughnuts when the store first opened at Siam Paragon, a high-end mall, home of luxury brands such as Prada, Versace, Bvlgari, Chloé, and Cartier.)

McDonald's Thailand's Spicy Crispy Chicken Salad over Rice

But back to indigenization. Ideally it should be done, but when it’s not done or when it’s not done right, historically speaking, things tend to go bad for the business.
KFC and McDonald’s have been very good at keeping their western appeal while offering things that are familiar to the locals’ palates. They present something foreign in such a way that the locals’ minds can understand and appreciate.[2]
An example off the top of my head: KFC and A&W. The two used to be close rivals. A little more than a couple of decades later, it’s clear who’s doing better. While KFC is practically everywhere doing well with their American-style fried chicken along with fried chicken with green curry sauce over rice, laab-flavored fried chicken over rice, and their spicy fried chicken salad over rice, among others, A&W is nowhere near as successful. Want a waffle and a root beer float? You can visit that lone A&W store in Siam Square or travel to one of their small outlets located in selected — no, not luxury malls — gas stations outside the city center. Their half-hearted attempt at indigenization (fried chicken with teriyaki sauce …) doesn’t seem to have done much good.
McDonald’s has also squashed their other once-rivals over the years as well. Many, including Arby’s, have tried and failed. Could it be because they simply couldn’t compete with the Golden Arches? Or could it be because they didn’t offer McJok rice congee for breakfast or McNamtok spicy meat salad with rice for lunch and dinner?
Are these foods good? Subjective.

[1] “Good” as in I like it, but don’t ever find myself up at night craving it. Also, I don’t usually eat at KFC Thailand, because I don’t like their fried chicken and I hate their mashed potatoes and funky-smelling gravy. But if I’m in a situation where I must eat there, I will, without a doubt, go for their fried chicken with green curry over rice. Look down on it all you want, KFC Thailand’s green curry sauce is better than what passes as green curry at many Thai restaurants I’ve visited in the US, Europe, and even Southeast Asia.
[2] This reminds me of something unrelated (or not?): the evangelization of foreign religions in Thailand. In order for the locals to accept a foreign god, missionaries have had to use the kind of language that the locals set aside for Buddha, Buddhism, as well as the monarchy and all things related to it. They could not have introduced their faith as being equal to or better than the local faiths and systems without invoking the familiar. This is indigenization. Something to ponder.

32 Responses to The Indigenization of Thai Restaurants Overseas: Part One – American Fast Food Chains in Thailand

  1. M.K. January 21, 2013 at 5:09 am #

    Amazing article! I think if I could go back and follow a different path, I would be a food anthroplogist. :•)

    I found the comparison between KFC and A&W interesting, as I had no idea that they’ve even tried to step outside their Western menu. Their branding relies heavily on nostalgia and an American retro aesthetic; but this is a specific nostalgia for people who are now 60-70 years old (and non-immigrants) that doesn’t really exist outside of North America. I guess they found that indigenization doesn’t work with their pseudo-diner branding. I love root beer floats, but Chubby Chicken and teriyaki? Good grief.

  2. Michele January 21, 2013 at 10:22 am #

    I’m glad to have your take on Thai KFC–of which, as I think you know, I am an unabashed fan.

    On the topic of the indigenization of American fast food overseas, I don’t know if the indigenization process is as simple as localizing the menu offerings. Actually, I think KFC in Thailand is a bit of an exception in that the locals really are eating the localized items regularly; in my experience in Asia, the localized items are often limited-time-only marketing gimmicks, similar to the McRib, which is to say that they are more for symbolism and publicity than real menu stalwarts. They might excite people, bring them in, and help to shape the general brand perception, but I don’t think they make up the bulk of what is consumed. And then I think of the most globally successful American fast food chain of all time, Subway (that factoid surprised me as well), which does zero food-indigenization whatsoever.

    There’s a sort of meta-indigenization going on in some of these places that I think exceeds the more simplistic formula of offering facsimiles of local dishes. For example, I’m always noticing when I’m back in Hong Kong that the pastries they sell at Starbucks and McCafe are vastly superior, verging on patisserie, to anything you would find in the US branches. Localizing the menu would mean selling egg tarts, steamed lotus buns, etc., but what they’re doing instead is performing according to local expectations of Western sophistication. Still an adaptation but not such a linear one.

    Have you ever read James Watson’s “Golden Arches East”?

    • Leela January 21, 2013 at 10:37 am #

      Good points.
      Subway is still relatively new in Thailand, and it is not having the same level of success which McDonald’s, KFC, or Pizza Hut have. I want to see if and how they will adapt.
      Will check out Watson’s book. I haven”t read it, but I will. Thanks, Michele.

  3. Michele January 21, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    Oh, while we’re on the topic, the Rolls Royce of Thai indigenization for me has got to be the mango/pandan sticky rice sundae explosion (it is even topped with luk chup!) that taunts me from Swensen’s menus every time I visit Thailand. I am always there in the wrong damn season.

  4. Kimberly Field January 21, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    Having watched these chains come in more and more into Thailand I wondered who they were really for? Tourists, Ex Pats or locals. Mostly I see tourists and young Thais frequenting them. As a younger Thai generation starts to change the way things are done (as each generation does) they have adopted a more broad minded view on food, My friends (Older 40 and up Thais) are still very dedicated to their cusine would almost never eat at one of those chains So with all the changes why wouldn’t they enjoy different cusines and styles of foods if available to them. Times are a changing. One time several years ago I was walking out of a 7-11 near the Market in Chaing Mai and I noticed two uniformed school age children sitting on the step sharing a snack one had a hot dog and the other a small bag of fried bugs. I can also remember another time when I was at an out door eating area in Northeastern Thailand and ta family had plates of food and the adults were enjoying their fried grubs and the kids were eating french fries. I guess what I am saying is that we will just have to embrace the changes and move along with them.

  5. Alfredo di Stefano January 21, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    I am from Los Angeles. I have been to Thailand many times most recently last September 2012. My whole purpose of going to Thailand is to enjoy authentic Thai food. Why would I want to eat at KFC or Subway. If I want to eat at those places I would stay in L.A.

    Oh by the way. Food from street vendors in Bangkok beats any Thai restaurant food here in L.A. Eat your hearts out!!

  6. R. Saunders January 21, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    This is a wonderful and interesting blog entry that really makes you think.

    I am an American who lived in Thailand for 10 years and it is certainly a dichotomy that I have thought about many times.

    When I lived in Thailand, I used to crave American food like a mad man, but not McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut, but real hamburgers, American style Chinese, BBQ, deli sandwiches, American style breakfast, and New York style pizza and Italian-American food. This is not American haute cuisine, but things I consider that belong to the fast food niche.

    In Thailand, this food wasn’t done well.

    (Except that Italian food as in Italian from Italy could be on par with anything you get from Italy. But these restaurants were owned by Italians.)

    Conversely, now that I am back in the US, I crave every Thai fast food like kao mun gai, pad krapao, gai yang and som tam, moo dang, Thai Sukiyaki( MK baby!), Laab, Kuaytiow, Kao Soi, Gradook moo kratiem prik thai, Sorry for the transliterations. But I am sure you get the picture.

    I think the thing that drives me more crazy is the fact that Thai food, in general, is just so bad where I live in the US(despite the plethora of Thai restaurants), and that most if not all don’t even offer the Thai street food staples, except for maybe Pad Thai, Pad Siew, and Pad Ki Mao, which are usually done really poorly here also.

    And while Thai street food is cheaper than cheap in Thailand, these are luxury foods in the US.

    I used to joke that it was immoral for me to pay $10-$15 to eat bad Thai food in America when I get the same food in Thailand for less than a $1 and it would be better than anything you could get in America.

    And to close my rant I would say that when American food critics critique Thai food it makes my head explode, especially when they are describing dishes as authentically Thai when nothing in the dish is Thai and you know they have never stepped foot in Thailand.

    If this thing makes me crazy, I am sure Thais just have to laugh when they read these reviews.

    I think Thais have more Buddhist patience and equanimity when it comes to the bastardization of their food than I do.

  7. Ken January 21, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    Hi, Leela–Interesting thesis. Maybe that explains why the rough, interesting edges of so much foreign food is rubbed away in its American rebirth. Of course, for those of us who have had the good fortune to travel, and eat unfamiliar food in its home setting, those American ethnic restaurants can be a bit disappointing after our return. I remember once eating in a Chinese restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown late one night. There were poster-sized hand-lettered signs, in Chinese, taped to the walls. When I asked the waiter about them, he explained that they were the daily specials. When I asked him to translate he said simply, “You no like.” When I persisted he pointed to one sign and said, “Smoke goose intestine with greens.” Against the the better advice of my dining companions, who really wouldn’t like it, I ordered it anyway. Smoked goose tripe with (I think) water spinach! It really was pretty good. I wish ethnic restaurants offered us at least one choice like that on menus designed for Americans. Good post. Ken

  8. BoiseNoise January 21, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

    Before we had Krispy Kreme stores in Idaho, they were considered a fancy brand here, too. People would actually drive to a neighboring state and back so that they could sell a load of Krispy Kreme doughnuts out of their trucks as a fundraiser! When the first local stores opened, there were long lines and a lot of fanfare. Now . . . they’re ubiquitous, and mostly ignored.

  9. BoiseNoise January 21, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    BTW, I think KFC should try offering some of those menu items back in the U.S. . . . I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they would go over really well!

  10. Michael B January 21, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    My wife, Kasma, leads trips to Thailand. On one trip one of the people went to McDonalds for a meal and reported back that the fried foods there were much better than in the U.S. On my 20 trips to Thailand, I’ve never eaten in a Western fast food restaurant there but I speculate that maybe the food is better than at their counterparts in the states. It could be that at KFC they are using palm oil instead of the insipid, not-quite-right vegetable oil (probably canola or soy) that they use in the U.S.: certainly the palm oil would make a less greasy, more crispy, delicious product. Also, they local adaptations can apparently be quite good: Kasma says that the custard tarts (such as are found where dim sum is served) at KFC are really quite good.

    • Leela January 22, 2013 at 6:55 am #

      Michael, you and Michele have brought up some good points regarding why these American franchises do well overseas and have been successful at establishing themselves as premium brands. Having said that, I think the foods at McDonald’s in Thailand are horrible — I really do. KFC, on the other hand, is quite brilliant. Funny you should mention the egg tarts. A friend of mine just commented that their egg tarts were better than what you could find at some “hi-so” bake shops in the city. I would have to try them for myself.

      • Michael B January 22, 2013 at 7:51 am #

        There’s also a very delicious egg tart at Or Tor Kor market in the first row towards the parking lot end. My is it good!

  11. Adam January 22, 2013 at 7:24 am #

    Hi Leela I loved your commentary. I fall into both camps of your subject as I own a Thai restaurant in Ireland (one of the only really authentic ones, and I also travel to Thailand alot with my wife from Bangkok. On the Thai food overseas point I have found over the ten years that my wife and I have been in business there has been a slow change to the choices customers are making on the menu. Yellow and green curries are still way out in front, and may I say well made yellow and green curries are superb, but there is a slow trend towards other dishes. We sell alot of Esarn food and some dishes that my wife’s family used to make. We try and really sell the more unusual dishes to our customers and more times than not they are wow’d with the result. To provide truly authentic Thai food outside of Thailand there has to be a definite decision by the owners to do so and then to gently promote this with your customers. I also find that many Thai chefs after working in farang style Thai restaurants are trained in the school of dumbing down. This we find, also needs to be knocked on the head as soon as a new chef starts in our kitchens!! Restaurants such as Pok Pok in the US and Spice I Am in Sydney are real poster boys in the way Thai food should be made and sold.

    Re the US fast food in Thailand. I actually get sad every time I go to Thailand because each time I see more and more fast food in the malls and along the streets and even worse young Thai boys and girls getting fatter and fatter. I am blown away by the number of steak houses there are. I understand most of the meat comes from Australia. Again the food is cheap and processed. Although not cheap to buy. I find that it’s tends to be the 30 and under age group that are opting for this. I know I’m going to sound like the westerner looking down his nose here but is it not the craving middle class of Thailand seeking to emulate us in the West. If only they knew the truth!!

    Anyway brevity is the soul of wit so I’ll end here. Love your work Leela.

    • Leela January 22, 2013 at 7:37 am #

      ” … there has to be a definite decision by the owners to do so and then to gently promote this with your customers …”
      Yes. Customer demographics play a part as well. Sometimes, I’m wondering if Pok Pok and the hardcore Thai restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and NYC would be as successful had they been located in smaller cities. But this is all speculation.

      • Adam January 23, 2013 at 1:32 am #

        Hi Leela yes the demographics play a part. I remember when I first emigrated to Australia Thai food was such a novelty and it was hit and miss. Now there is the proverbial Thai on every street corner. Having said that it is not always great. My place is in Athlone with a population of 25,000. I find with the locals here they have travelled, they have money (well they had, the country is broke at the mo!!) and over the years their palates have become more sophisticated. Before we hit town the local Chinese’s were the place to go. How things have changed. My big problem here is finding well qualified chefs. It is now impossible to get work permits for Thai chefs and as a result the “gene pool” of good staff is very small.

        Could I ask you, if you were to pick your top five Thai eateries in the US what would they be. I am planning a trip to see what all the fuss is about! Thanks

        • Leela January 23, 2013 at 2:25 am #

          I have a few places I need to visit before I can come up with a list. One thing about Thai restaurants overseas, though, is that most of them have menus that are similar to the Obama menu which aims at giving you such a broad range of Thai dishes that they end up being mediocre across the board. Notice that very few restaurants in Thailand operate this way. So what I’m saying that it’s easier to recommend dishes (dish X at Restaurant X) than restaurants.

          • Adam January 23, 2013 at 4:34 am #

            Mmmm. I wish we had the population mass and the multiculturalism to support that!

            You’ve plenty of time to prepare your list in whatever form you choose. We won’t be going across the pond until May. Are you really writing a book? Who would you recommend for an Irish farang to read to get a feel for the history of Thai food/

          • Leela January 23, 2013 at 4:39 am #

            Yes, I’m writing a book.
            Nobody has ever written anything comprehensive on the subject of the history of Thai cuisine — at least not in English. And all of the primary documents that will help you put the pieces together are in Thai.

    • Michael B January 22, 2013 at 7:55 am #

      Adam, I’ve been coming to Thailand since 1992 and one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the proliferation of western carbohydrates. Walking through any mall you see a dozen or more shops selling western carbs – donuts, cakes, pastries, etc. – your basic empty calories.They’ve also found their way into the fresh markets and I see less and less of the traditional Thai kanom, which, by the way, nearly always have something healthy in them (such as coconut milk, squash, taro, etc.) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every year I see more fat and even obese Thai people.

      • Adam January 23, 2013 at 1:34 am #

        Oh Kanom, my mother in law makes them!!!! To die for!!

  12. Chris R January 22, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    This is sort of a random series of thoughts so I will apologize in advance if it doesn’t really forward your thesis.

    While never having been to Thailand (so take what I say with a spoon of nam prik) I will say that any successful restaurant has to appeal to the community. In other words, you have to know your audience. This isn’t to say you need to dumb down your foods but if you want to offer texas style beef brisket in India you may have some issues with your concept. Different cultures simply have different palettes and while some people are willing to move outside of their range this isn’t necessarily true for everyone. For example, a good number of people in the US (and some other western cultures) have problems with middle eastern foods that include cinnamon and other ‘desert’ spices in a savory dish (Moroccan pastilla for example – a squab based meat pie with generous amounts of cinnamon and served with powdered sugar). So a successful restauranteur has to make a decision; do you stick to your guns and have a great moral victory or modify your dishes to suit the local palette and make some money? Now, being that almost no one goes into this industry without the express idea of making money the ‘indiginization’ of food makes sense. Sell the people what they want – that’s why you can get a hot taro pie at McDonald’s and spam musubi at 7-11 in Hawaii.

    What has been changing over the past couple of decades is that the western palette has been expanding. It still has some hangups but it’s moved a lot and it’s a pretty wonderful thing (I have an army cookbook from WWII – if that’s reflective in anyway of the American palette from the ’40s the change is really stunning). This is why I think we are finding more places in the US to present dishes that are more authentic (for whatever definition of authentic you want to use).

    So I can’t tell you why a Thai would want to eat at KFC any more than I can tell you why a farmer from Iowa would love sushi I can say that indiginization makes business sense.

  13. Kara H January 22, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    I grew up in Thailand, and my favorite sandwich McDonalds ever had was the sticky rice and pork sandwich. It had two “bun-shaped” patties of sticky rice with pork and sauce inside. We would skip the fries and just get two or three of those each! They only had it for one summer, though. Sad.

    • Leela January 22, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

      Kara, maybe the sticky rice burgers (like this one) at 7-Eleven can tide you over until McDonald’s realizes the error of their way and bring back those pork burgers. They’re actually pretty good.

  14. Mark Wiens January 24, 2013 at 3:36 am #

    Interesting and well written article Leela. I’ve often thought about this very subject, and while teaching English a while back I would ask all my students what their favorite food was (choice of anything). I think my top answer was “KFC.”

    On a side note, just like that mango cart you saw, there’s a guy with a similar beautiful durian cart display – I’ve seen him a couple times just south of Wang Wian Yai.

    • Halfham January 24, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

      Migrationology!!! You read this blog too? Cool to know you and I roll in the same crowd. LOL

      Leela: I truly enjoy reading your blogs and seeing your beautiful pictures. I always look forward to reading your new postings.

  15. Laura January 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    This is fascinating. Thanks for writing! We obviously did not eat at these places when we were there, but hey we (my husband and I, on our honeymoon) only got to go once, so why eat there. But everything you say makes sense.

  16. Catherine January 31, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    Oh man, I have way too much to say about this.

    My family tried KFC in the US several times, each time several years apart, each time predicated on the thought of “It really can’t be as bad as we remember… how can you ruin fried chicken?” Each time, invariably, we regretted forgetting our earlier mistakes.

    Imagine, then, my shock and surprise when I spent a semester in Singapore and, in a fit of what some might call madness, decided to try the indigenized spicy fried chicken and found it to be… quite good, actually!

    Of course, once I returned to the US and tried American KFC, it was a return to form. Perhaps the worst abuses of factory farming haven’t been fully adopted in Southeast Asia; whatever the reason, Malaysian-spiced KFC was pretty much head and shoulders above its American counterpart.

    That being said, it’s a curious inversion of my experience with Thai and Indian food. I was never really a fan of Indian restaurants–I’m still not–but the food my Indian mother-in-law makes is some of the most delicious stuff I’ve ever eaten. I’d go so far as to say that not only have I never had a bad meal at an Indian home (various in-laws, friends of the family, etc), I’ve never eaten an average meal there either. I’ve never eaten at a Thai home, but my first experience with Thai food was in Thailand and I’ve never found a Thai restaurant in the US that was anything but a pale imitation of the real deal (though I’d be thrilled to hear a recommendation for one in the Bay Area which passes muster with someone who’s had Thai food at the source).

    So… indigenization to American tastes makes food worse, indigenization to foreign countries makes food better? This makes some sense since, by all accounts, until recently, the mass culinary landscape in America was pretty bleak (if I had a dime for every time I heard about how someone’s family would only buy Velveeta in the 70’s… well, I’d have a dime. But it’s symptomatic). I can only hope that a reversal of that comes eventually.

    A few other things–I think Krispy Kreme used to elicit the same sort of reaction in the US as it apparently did in Thailand. I’ve never seen the appeal, but I’ve heard plenty of stories of people driving and standing in line when a local one opened.

    With regards to A&W–they’re hardly even a part of the fast food scene in the US (at least where I live… I don’t think I’ve ever seen one) so it’s not surprising that they’re not taking over the rest of the world.

    @Michele–in my experience, localized offerings are hardly limited-time-only–or at least, even if a specific one is limited-time-only, it’s almost immediately replaced by another “limited-time-only” one. In India, there are localized items at Subway, McDonald’s (my in-laws kept going on about how good their burgers are… it never even occurred to them that the “standard” burger in the US is beef, not chicken), Pizza Hut (my husband used to go on about how good their pizza is in India).

    Finally, I think the prestige part of the equation can’t be ignored. A Russian TV show my parents used to watch had a line that we’re still laughing at years later, “Let’s have dinner. I know a nice McDonald’s just outside of town.”

  17. Gary August 7, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

    Have to many fast foods in Thailand (KFC, BK, MCDONALDS, SUBWAY, CARLS), they all have one thing in common – no lines! These companies insist on charging near U. S. prices. Chicken and labor are very very cheap in Thailand, so why the high prices?


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